Hope or despair: which do we choose?

This is the first in a what I hope will be a regular series where I rewatch a movie I’ve seen before and liked, and write about it from a personal perspecitve. I would give the series a cool name, but I haven’t come up with one yet … 

Jaws – a film that is often credited with launching what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon – is justly famous for many things. It’s a masterpiece of slowly building fear, in part because the shark itself is unseen by the viewer for a long, long time. David Fincher’s 1994 serial killer thriller Se7en (Seven) takes inspiration from Spielberg’s game-changer in that respect; we don’t see the face of the killer until 30 minutes before the film’s end, at a moment of revelation of his own choosing. Neither do we see the murders take place; in the film’s memorable rain-sodden foot chase we only see his back; his face remains out of focus even when he’s pointing a gun in Brad Pitt’s face, deciding his fate. David Fincher knows what most good horror films and thrillers have made apparent over the years: the unseen is more threatening and frightening than the known.

Rewatching this film for the first time in years in 2019, I’m struck especially by how normal the abnormal events it portrays are made to seem. A serial killer who bases his work on the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition is nothing especially original; religious references are a familiar serial killer trope. Fincher places this killing spree in the hands of an apparently ordinary figure – one who goes by the name of John Doe (the name given by American police to an unidentified deceased male). As John Doe himself says, as the film’s unforgettable ending hoves into view: “I’m not special; I’ve never been exceptional … it’s more comfortable for you to label me insane”.

seven poster

 

It’s dangerous to quote the words of a killer as if they contain some kind of truthfulness, but this is the heart of the film: that evil is ubiquitous; it’s in all of us. In each of the serial killer’s victims, in the police chasing him, in the killer himself. In an age where the mass shootings that still stalk America are so routinely passed off as committed by someone with ‘mental health problems’, personal responsibility is avoided. The truth is we’re all to blame; Se7en holds a mirror up to us, and it’s not a pleasant sight. To summarise what John Doe says near the conclusion, we tolerate sin in ourselves and others because it’s normal. It’s this, it seems, that as the credits roll and those involved are left to live with the terrible consequences of their actions, that drives Morgan Freeman to utter the film’s final words in voice over: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a brutal way to leave the story, and one which the makers of the film fought the studio to keep in, and no less powerful for it; though now, having seen many more films than I had on seeing Se7en in the cinema, it seemed a tad too much of tell as opposed to show.

This seems bleak – and it is, if we conclude that the fight of which Hemingway is speaking is fruitless. For those who believe following Jesus is worthwhile and eternally meaningful, it’s a profoundly hopeful place to be; the world may not be as fine a place, as was intended; but there is a better way; and that better way will, eventually, be seen by all.

It is a battle, though, and in the meantime many suffer. As long as any of us – like John Doe in this film – take matters in to our hands, take the judging as something for us to execute, then there will be casualties. Not least ourselves, but also those unfortunate enough to be in our orbit.

All of which leads us to the Kevin Spacey question. With the revelations about his alleged sexual harassments and assaults, the question remains: should we watch his films? I have no easy answer here. I have been bullied to the point of suicide by someone who used to speak on big conference stages; I know how painful it was to see that person lauded by thousands when I knew different; I have forgiven the person, but still my stomach lurches with nausea and I’m wracked with anxiety if I see his name alluded to in a social media feed. I was sexually and physically abused as an adult by an adult; if I were to see her in a public role, it would be very hard to take. So I argue that Spacey’s victims must be given much consideration here; I would want the same for myself. With that in mind, I rewatched Se7en for the first time since these allegations came out. As I reflected on the film’s themes of the ubiquity of evil I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. If Spacey’s past work is not to be considered any more; if my bully’s speaking is no longer to be listened to; if my abuser is never to have a relationship … then what of me? I have not done any of these things – but if I believe sin and evil are ubiquitous (and I do), then that means I’m as guilty of sin as anyone else. I hope I own my sins and seek forgiveness, in large part through the regular discipline of confession; but I also know I am prone to err. Let he who is without sin …

I do not have an answer, at least not yet. Certainly it seems to me that Spacey, and those like him, should not be widely spoken of or employed in the public eye – at the very least until fault has been admitted, responsibility taken and justice served. Fittingly for this film, for now I remain with this tension unresolved.

What remains true is that it’s still a beautifully constructed, chilling and gripping thriller that haunts and shocks even after all these years; even when I know the point to which the story is heading. More culturally significant films still lay ahead of Fincher, not least Fight Club; many would cite Zodiac (2006) as his best film; The Social Network (2010) tells at least part of the story of one of the era’s dominant themes. Of course, we don’t know what more is to come from him. Se7en sets the template for his best work: morally complex, darkly thrilling, and directed with a flair that fits the story and the theme. If not quite as dynamic as I remember, it’s still a film to be reckoned with, that ultimately asks us to choose between despair and hope.

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Gone Girl: a dark parable for anyone in a relationship

Why are you reading this?

Do you trust my opinion, or is it simply passing the time?

Do you want to find out what’s going on in my head, or is it a way of helping you form your own opinion?

That’s a glimpse inside the world of Gone Girl. It’s a parable of contemporary relationships that consistently destabilises the narrative direction; that portrays intimate relationships as minefields of (dis)trust and self-justification; in which there’s scarcely a single sympathetic character but still has the gall to ask you where your sympathies lie … and why.

Directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) and adapted from her own novel by Gillian Flynn it’s best understood as a neo-Gothic melodrama/thriller. Yes, really. The film opens on the morning of Nick and Amy’s 5th wedding anniversary; Amy goes missing in suspicious, possibly violent circumstances. The finger of public and police suspicion starts to turn on Nick, and we see the truth unfold in parallel with the flashback story of Nick and Amy’s relationship from the day they first met.

It’s hard to say much more than that without spoilers. So though I’ve tried to avoid any, proceed in the rest of this post with caution; I hadn’t read the book, and managed to avoid spoilers. From the point of view of pure plot, it is a deliciously dark thriller, constantly taking the truth and twisting it just out of the viewer’s reach. In the final sections the film turns into strange territory, but that it does so without ever feeling false is a measure of just how good this film is. David Fincher is on top form here, meticulously constructing every scene and narrative beat with a painter’s eye; the performances  – especially Rosamund Pike as Amy and Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer  – are pretty much on the money; and the film is shot with a sheen and style appropriate to the film’s themes. It nods to all sorts of films – from Hitchcock, through Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and in one startling moment, Carrie – yet is definitively its own vision.

For all that, the film demands more from you. It has a dark vision of human relationships, and more or less forces the viewer into some uncomfortable reflections. For me the film touches genius in making you to pick a side; then undercuts that by showing you how shallow it is to do so. There’s a question around the source novel as to if it’s misogynist or feminist; such a debate may miss the point completely, in fact. Truth isn’t to be found on one ‘side’ or the other; it’s to be found in the combustible chemical reaction of two broken people. In the film’s deliberately over-stated central relationship we see writ large a deeper truth; that the sum of a relationship is greater than its constituent parts. Hence the uncomfortable reality the film leaves us with – give yourself to your relationships; don’t hide. The more you hide, the more exposed you are. The less you give, the more you lose; the more you give, the more you gain.

It’s not just relationships in Gone Girl‘s crosshairs; it’s a scathing attack on celebrity culture, on media obsession with making info-tainment out of personal tragedy (it felt apt to see this film in the week that Oscar Pisotrius was sentenced for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp), gender and domestic violence, and parenting. It needs a hearty running time to do all that without collapsing under its own weight. It is a long film, but necessarily so; it flies by. Mind, heart and eyes are fully engaged throughout.

In the end, however, it’s the nature of intimate relationships with which it is most concerned. For all the heightened reality that is a feature of this and Fincher’s other best work, it leaves you with pertinent and uncomfortable choices to make and questions to answer. It’s impossible to come out of this film and not find yourself sitting in judgement one character or the other; analyse that for long, though, and you find the finger pointed back on yourself. Which is what a parable should do, really.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Forrest Gump – You Never Know What’s coming

This is just a quick thought. Inspire by Benjamin Button, which I’ve seen described as Forrest Gump for people who think they’re bright, I decided to revisit the latter. I hadn’t seen it since the first cinema release, when I took against it because it wasn’t Pulp Fiction or Shawshank Redemption. I still adore the prison movie: I haven’t seen Tarantino’s in a while, but I suspect I admire it as much but no longer feel warm towards it.

Anyway, I found it funny and charming in a way that would have shocked my student self. I’m over my Hanks-phobia, and Gary Sinise was great.

Lesson: always revisit; the joy is magnified.

Benjamin Button: A Life Apart

Danny Boyle and David Fincher are both directors who have had their more successful moments when dealing with darker issues. Danny Boyle’s tales of murder, addiction and rampant viruses are among his most successful and effective films. David Fincher’s career  started with a sci-fi/horror effort as apart of one of the key franchises in the genre’s history; has made 2 brilliant but very different serial killer tales and given us one of the most-quoted generation-definers in years in the shape of Fight Club. Both of the had lacked serious Oscar contention until this year, both of them with films that aimed away from these darker shades and towards the more uplifting, inspiring end of the market.

So why did the British director and the Indian story take the spoils? All the ingredients were there for Benjamin Button; one megastar, one star, visual effects that sell the essence of the story, and a story that should appeal to any film-goer who wants something unusual and intriguing.

The answer is, ultimately, that it’s contrived. It’s a machine, an end in itself, too purpose-driven for something that would love to be whimsical and charming. If the goal was to intrigue, then we needed at lease some explanation of why the title character ages backwards – or at least a sub-plot where people try to find out, but ultimately come up with nothing. But no, it’s just left hanging. If the goal was to invoke wonder and awe and magic, then somebody had to express it, or trade in it. If it was meant to alternately horrify and make us fall for BB, then the make-up (for all it’s Oscar-winning technical brilliance) needs to show us a soul, not just a skin; to me, nothing ever really seemed to hurt or threaten anyone, until the very end at least If it’s meant to make self-referential jokes about history and the cultural icons whose era Brad Pitt’s central character (in his physical prime, with no make-up) lives through, then we need something with more integrity then a James Dean rip-off scene. If we’re meant to believe that Cate Blanchett’s character is really a dancer, then we need to believe that she does something other than dancing some of the time – I just don’t believe dancers go out dancing after the show or out of the theatre; all she is, at the end of it all, a cardboard cut-out. If it’s meant to be an inspiring, romantic love-story, then we need some chemistry.

You may say that Slumdog Millionaire treads the lines of some of those faults – but that’s a film driven by story and character and place. Benjamin Button is driven by desire to press buttons until we react with the tears that David Fincher says he shed on first reading the script. Problem is, button pressing may work for some, but it’s not going to change anyone the way Danny Boyle’s film has.

It’s by no means all bad, it just could have been so much more. The last few minutes, with the aging woman nursing him through his regression into physical childhood was beautiful, painful, sad, inevitable. We could have had more of that; if the rest of the film had measured up to it, we could have had a masterpiece on aging, our bodies and the search for a creator.

It’s a shame we didn’t get that. David Fincher is capable of genuine brilliance, whose first serial-killer film told us more about sin then many religious tracts; he’s a man capable of more insight than he probably knows. With Benjamin Button, he falls short; compared to the film that beat it, this is a life-time away.